A Race of Chicken Littles
Updated: May 6
There are three ways to cope when the sky falls.
The First, to run around keening and Biblically bemoaning, your hands in the air, your eyes Heavenward, praying for deliverance. We are victims, all of us. Victims of fate and circumstance and the ill-will of others; the evil that men do all around as the world crashes and burns. So we gather our tribe and huddle together. We light our fires and sharpen our spears, because out there in darkness is a world to be feared.
The Second, to offer a nihilistic shrug of inevitability. It is what it is. Whadaya gonna do? So we sit back and open that bottle, and listen to the band as the firmament collapses.
The Third, to look at the First Two and say NO. Categorically. There's more to life than Us and Them. There's more to it than comfortable acquiescence. We're human beings! We've struggled mightily for ten thousand years to get away from tribalism! To get to civilization! Progress is good. Even when we rail against it on our laptops and smartphones, seemingly unaware of the irony. And when Nero fiddled while Rome burned, well, that didn't end well for Nero or Rome. The Third Way, to realize that we're human beings who are hopelessly flawed, yes. We hardly ever get it right the first time. (Or the second.) In fact, sometimes it takes forever. But our saving grace: we have the capacity to never give up. The First Two ways are about giving up. The Third is about realizing our common humanity. And not the surface as the summum bonum, but rather, what's not so obvious. Some words come to mind that seem risibly old-fashioned, yet far-seeing and futuristic. Character. Fortitude. Courage. Perseverance. These are the things that get us through the worst of times, these things inside that some of us possess while others sorely lack.
I believe the struggle of being human is to find these things. And of course, this ain't easy and it may take a while. And some of us are impatient or afraid. And we're not afraid of others, but of what we see in ourselves. Imagine looking for courage and not finding any. But then there's that First Way of Coping! We gather our tribe in collective courage and we double down and sharpen more spears. We put more sentries on guard because the assault is coming, the sky is about to crash. We've become a race of Chicken Littles, fleeing back and forth, clucking and squawking in mortal fear. There's Us and there's Not Us. What could be simpler?
So what does this mean for society at large and for one of the hallmarks of society—Culture? For a millennium, the Arts have been the jewel in civilization's crown. Think the Cathedral at Chartres. During World War Two, Winston Churchill, the noted racist Imperialist, was asked to cut arts funding in favor of the war effort. His reply: "Then what are we fighting for?" This is, if not the, then a fundamental question. Yes, no one likes when the sky falls (even though it's been falling for as long as there've been human beings). And we tried that tribe thing. It worked for a while when we were stuck in caves. But we've progressed. Although I can see the new Progressives in their 21st century caves, posting pics on Instagram of their selfless simplicity. The problem—and it's a big one—is a matter of Art and Culture. Both capitalized, as they've both, because of the Chicken Littles, been lower-cased. Demoted, devalued, diminished, deconstructed. If everything is seen as Us and Not Us, then Art will be seen this way too. If this painting or that book or that film doesn't conform to the Us guidelines, then it is (according to the dictums of the creed) not worth considering. But here's the rub. Art has never been one to play by the rules. Art has never taken kindly to being told what to do. Art has never been a kiss-ass or a suck-up. All that's for the Quislings, the Socialist Realists, the Panderers. Art is a place of courage. Of fearlessness and innovation. Of bold undaunted nose-snubbing in the face of monoliths. What we have now is a new monolith, the creation of the Chicken Littles. This place of fear and conformity. Of familiar echoes and pleasing images and words that say what's already been said and mutually agreed upon.
And they do reward their own. The latest, a novel, American Dirt, about a woman and her child escaping Mexico and violence, coming to America. This... "idea" (forgive my editorializing) garnered a million-dollar advance for its author. And is it because of the quality of the "idea" and the work itself, or is it because it cynically (or perhaps good-heartedly) pandered to the zeitgeist of the First Way of Coping? To the people of the First Way, Donald Trump our President (they hate when they hear this) is the sky and he's rapidly raining down. (Although Mr. Trump might like to see himself, or rather Himself, as The Firmament.) So they band together in their caves, in indignation before the fire. And they support those who check the right boxes. But as for the rest—Barbarians!
Which brings me to myself. (And no, if I were a Narcissist, I wouldn't have waited until the last paragraph to tell my story.) My new novel, FOTUS (published by Bancroft Press), is a political satire about the world in which we all currently inhabit, with fresh insights and perspectives, not to mention humor. Sounds pretty good to me, especially the humor part. It's about a self-aware fetus in the womb who runs for President; the ultimate single-issue candidate (have I mentioned it's a satire?). The problem—and this problem is huge—is that the book doesn't show its hand. It's not a Trump-basher. (There goes my shot at Late-Nite TV!) But it's not a Trump-flag-waver either. It's one of those throwbacks to, well, that guy Shakespeare, where the good guys are not all good and the bad guys are not all bad and we're, all of us, human beings (as I said at the beginning). We're in it together, grasping and groping, messy and chaotic, trying to find a spark of humanity in the vast indifference. My book is about this. Our shared struggle as we try to make sense of things in, as T.S. Eliot said, "this immense panorama of futility." But when you go down this road, there are no Yesses and Nos. There are no positivelys and definitives. There are no easy answers. What you find are ambiguities and contradictions and endless shades of gray (not fifty). This is not the kind of thing you can hang your hat on and it won't keep the sky from falling. But maybe the point isn't the sky after all. Maybe if we turn our heads we'll see what's in front of us, instead of the terror (real or imagined). Maybe it's time for the artists and writers to show their courage. And if we look to an artist such as this, we'll find that what they offer is about us all. And while not a buffer or a distraction from the imminent peril, it may inspire us to find our own courage, and to find meaning in what seems like the end of meaning.
I'll close with old Winston, that Colonialist misogynist bigot, who said regarding art: "Without tradition, art is a flock of sheep without a shepherd. Without innovation, it is a corpse."
***Please watch the video of Kevin Kunundrum reading this essay, in the BLOG post of May 6, 2020...